The Psychology of Doom Tourism and Last-Chance Travel

Can we overcome the paradox of dark tourism?

Posted Oct 20, 2020

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Easter Island has been proposed as a model for the entire world
Source: Photo by Steven Weeks via UnSplash

The statues of Easter Island are as iconic as they are mysterious. Erected over 600 years ago, they also provide a cautionary tale for the present day. 

The small, isolated island in the South Pacific, known by its earliest inhabitants as Rapa Nui, was at one point home to a thriving community of over 15,000. However, through a gradual process called "ecocide," Easter Islanders overharvested the island's resources, and ultimately, themselves. As Jared Diamond explains in his 2005 book, Collapse: "Gradually trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. By the time the last fruit‐bearing adult palm tree was cut, palms had long since ceased to be of economic significance. ... No one would have noticed the feeling of the last small palm." 

Archaeological evidence suggests that only a few generations after this environmental upheaval, the population dwindled and the civilization collapsed. 

More recent work suggests a wrinkle to this story — that European diseases may have also contributed to Easter Island’s demise. And in addition, the Rapu Nui inhabitants may not have died off immediately following the environment's collapse, but instead lived an adjusted lifestyle for a few more generations, feeding off of small rodents that infested the island.

These points remain controversial but the larger lesson remains clear: Humans are capable of destroying the finite environmental resources that our lives depend on. 

The Paradoxical Psychology of Doom Tourism

The earth is its own island. As Diamond predicted in Collapse, we’d soon find ourselves in an analogous situation with respect to the earth’s resources. As he describes, it’s the "clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources." And here we are. 

If we’re to heed the cautionary tale of Easter Island, it’s crucial to understand why it unfolded. The key to this may lie in better understanding the biases in our consumer behavior. And while we can’t go back and study this in the Rapa Nui, we do have a live simulation of this in today’s world: Doom Tourism

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Fragile sites like glaciers have seen increased interest from tourists
Source: Photo by Jonatan Pie via UnSplash

While climate change poses a longer-term existential threat, it currently threatens specific geographies at a much faster timescale. The coastlines of the Maldives become more constricted as sea levels rise, threatening to submerge them entirely within the century. The glaciers melt further away each year. Animal species of the Amazon become more threatened and sparse each passing year. 

Here is where Doom Tourism comes in: When a certain site becomes sufficiently endangered it actually increases the demand to go and see it. And as more and more people go visit this site, it further damages its ecology, making it more endangered, and in turn, increasing demand. This sort of "last chance" travel generates a vicious cycle,  leading to the acceleration of an already environmentally dire situation. This dynamic is often referred to as the doom tourism paradox. 

Our susceptibility to it is grounded in our own psychology. The scarcity principle predicts that as a good becomes rarer, its demand increases. And this is exactly what has happened with at-risk tourist locations. Sadly, the activity of seeing these last chance travel destinations also accelerates their demise. 

This is why the increasingly fleeting nature of these tourist experiences only stimulates their demand. You can go see the Eiffel Tower anytime, but there may only be a narrow window to see the Glaciers of Antarctica in all of their majestic glory. 

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The increasingly fleeting nature of these tourist experiences only stimulates their demand
Source: Photo by Kyson Dana via UnSplash

Another kind of psychological bias is also working against us. With hordes of people heading to at-risk sites each year, the contribution of any given individual seems less and less. And therefore, refraining from doing so is perceived as being trivial. It’s all too easy to think, “If thousands of people go each year, what’s one more person?” 

Recent research found that nearly three-quarters of visitors to the Great Barrier Reef were motivated to see it before it disappears. However, one’s concern for the reef, and the beliefs about how much damage their visit would cause was completely uncorrelated. Even environmentally-minded consumers seem blind to the negative impact their individual visits can bring. 

Together, these forces conspire to create a classic "tragedy of the commons" scenario, in an accelerated race to the bottom.

The Philosophy of Doom Travel

Where do we go from here? The issue of Doom Tourism is brought to the fore in philosopher Emily Thomas’ book, The Meaning of Travel. Her writing raises important philosophical and ethical questions about its practice. In examining these questions, we’re offered suggestions on how we might overcome them. 

For example, she examines the prospect that doom tourism can be given an educational bent, and that people may come to appreciate these sites and become ambassadors for their protection. Unfortunately, these interventions do not seem to work in practice. Dr. Thomas points to research suggesting that visiting Antarctica either did nothing to change the tourists’ environmental beliefs, or more troublingly, found that these visits decreased environmental friendliness.  

Has the environment been given a lifeline by COVID-19? As stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions have proliferated throughout the globe, these trends have been stemmed. People are locked indoors more and more; Doom Travel has been overwhelmingly replaced by Doom Scrolling. 

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Can the Great Barrier Reef go back to being simply beautiful - not fleetingly beautiful?
Source: Photo by Daniel Pelaez Duque via UnSplash

There’s a lot to say about the human, psychological toll that the pandemic has taken. But on the prospects of environmental stability, Dr. Thomas is cautiously optimistic. “If the ecological reports are to be believed, the pandemic has been positive for the environment. It has dramatically reduced flights, and these may be lasting changes. For example, we’ve learned that in business, a lot of things don’t require in-person meetings and can be done virtually”.

And as she points out in her book, progress in this domain may accelerate. Just as deterioration accelerates demand, rejuvenation may quell demand. The Great Barrier Reef goes back to being simply beautiful, not fleetingly beautiful. She writes, "Looking ahead, if our attempts at protecting places like Antarctica or the Great Barrier Reef fail, these sites will continue to deteriorate. Unfortunately, as their at-risk status increases, so too may visitor numbers. Conversely, if we succeed in protecting these places, they may cease to be at-risk. That could lead to visitor numbers dropping." (p. 186)

The slope goes both ways, and human behavior will determine the direction. 

Final Words on the Psychology of Doom Tourism

In Doom Tourism, we can see how our psychological biases, in tandem with market forces, can accelerate the destruction of our own environment. 

COVID-19 has clearly dealt humanity a difficult hand. But if there’s a silver lining, it may have given the environment a much needed break from human travel in general, and Doom Tourism in particular. In the best-case scenario, it has illustrated the capacity for us to come together as a global society, collaborate, and take on collective sacrifice for the greater good. 

But while these events provide a glimmer of hope, today’s environmental challenges are as pressing as ever. Easter Island provides us with a tragic, cautionary tale; Doom Tourism provides us with a modern, small-scale simulation. Whether we’ll heed these lessons remains to be seen. 

This post also appears in the consumer behavior blog PopNeuro.

References

Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed, Penguin Group USA

Gates, B. (Aug, 2020) COVID-19 is awful. Climate change could be worse, Gates Blog

Hunt, T. and Lipo, C. (2010) The Statues That Walked: Unraveling The Mystery Of Easter Island, New York, NY: Simon & Schuster 

Krulrich, R. (2013). What Happened On Easter Island — A New (Even Scarier) Scenario, NPR

Piggott-McKellar, Annah E., and Karen E. McNamara (2016). ‘Last Change Tourism and the Great Barrier Reef’, Journal of Sustainable Tourism 25: 397–415.

Thomas, E. (2018) The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad. London, UK: Oxford Press